Meeting the Exhibition Team

Today’s blog is written by Jo Gillam, one of the volunteers who has joined the project to help us create an exhibition. Jo advises museums on learning and access and she has her own blog – but today she is acting as guest blogger for Snapping the Stiletto.

 

On 13th July, one half of the exhibitions team for Snapping the Stiletto met for the first time in beautiful former Georgian mansion, Hollytrees Museum in Colchester. Seven volunteers from across Essex gathered with Project Manager, Pippa Smith and Interpretation Trainer, Stewart Alexander (@storylinestew). We were there to learn and discuss how to turn new research on local women who were active outside the home over the last century, into a meaningful, influential, accessible exhibition.

Hollytrees Museum Colchester

Pippa was a welcoming presence throughout the day. She was on hand to answer questions about the project such as timeframes and the different ways team members would be involved. Pippa stressed that it was the team’s exhibition with her role being to co-ordinate, organise, and “to act as a filter”.

Stewart guided us through good practice when writing interpretive text, giving us exercises involving the personal objects we’d all been asked to bring. I studied heritage interpretation post-degree and have a little experience of producing displays, so it was good to re-visit the theories of practitioners like Tilden. The group considered the use of intangibles and universal concepts, that people remember stories not facts, ways in which we might decide which stories or parts of them to tell, and how to get to the nub of a message. It was agreed that we should try to create pictures in the minds of readers, rather than simply writing summaries of facts, and to try to make emotional connections. Everyone was given practical writing guidelines which covered details such as word counts and sentence length. Towards the end of the day, we practised some of our learning using information on Southend worthy, Adelaide Hawken.

The third, important element of the day was the chance to get to know fellow volunteers. Apart from all being female, we were a varied group whose diverse ages, backgrounds, knowledge, skills and experiences should result in a team of many strengths. I’m certainly looking forward to working with such interesting women and building relationships with the remaining team members who will be getting together on 4th August.

Apart from meeting new people and finding out more about the structure of the exhibition project, what key point did I take away from the day? For me, it was that the messages we choose should meaningfully express the essence of what we wish to say and when combined should make complete stories. If the team can come up with clear messages of this nature, we’ll have a good basis for an excellent exhibition of stories audiences will leave caring about.

Jo Gillam @1accessforall

(Thanks to Hannah Salisbury for the photographs)

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National Democracy Week

It’s been a while since we blogged as we have been busy moving the project forward by recruiting teams to help us create a travelling exhibition, and to come up with ideas for events to celebrate 100 years of change for Essex women. The first team is recruited and we will be kicking off with a couple of training session but there is still time to sign up to be part of the engagement team if you are interested.

We’ve also been working with our partner museums and meeting them to find out what stories volunteers are starting to uncover and it’s great to see examples of women’s stories coming to the forefront – watch this space!

Our Project Manager has been busy putting together a travelling stand and its first outing is this week in the atrium at County hall in Chelmsford. July 2nd sees the start of the inaugural National Democracy Week and the 100 year anniversary of some women getting the vote is going to be in sharp focus so we’ve been invited to help the council celebrate.

Pippa will be on the stand to chat to people on Wednesday 4th so if you live or work locally and would like to find out more then do come along and meet her between 11 and 3. The stand will be there all week and we’re the taking it to an event to celebrate the birthday of Emmeline Pankhurst on July 15th at an EqualiTea.

 

A Volunteer’s Perspective

In honour of National Volunteers’ Week, Jan Whitelaw tells us about her experience volunteering at Southend Museum.

I came to be involved with the ‘Snapping the Stiletto’ project through a rather circuitous route. I am the Chairlady of the Prittlewell Victoria Townswomen’s Guild in Southend. All branches of the Guild had been tasked with producing a commemorative plaque of a notable local lady to display at the National AGM in Brighton. A google search helped me to find Rosina Sky, a Suffragist who had lived in Southend c1900. This was of particular interest to us as the Townswomen’s Guild grew out of the Women’s Suffrage movement. We were very keen to portray Rosina on our plaque. Unable to find a picture if her I e-mailed Southend Museums asking if they had one in their archives, which was the very best thing I could have done. Very soon I had a reply from Iona saying that they didn’t have any pictures of her, but would we be interested in carrying out research on Rosina for the ‘Snapping the Stiletto’ project, and inviting us to a training session. Yes – we would! This generated a great deal of interest amongst our members and five of us volunteered. At the training session we also heard for the first time about Councillor Adelaide Hawkins, the lady responsible for founding the very first Mother and Baby Clinic in Southend. So often the achievements of women (particularly those born Essex) are sidelined, so having the opportunity to help smash that negative ‘Essex girl’ image really appealed to us.

 

We have discovered so much about Rosina – a very strong woman who not only fought for women’s suffrage but managed to bring up four children, completely on her own, whilst running her own tobacconist and fancy goods shop. What a wonderful role model. We also found that elusive photograph for our plaque! The added bonus was hearing about Adelaide. One of the volunteers even managed to track down Adelaide’s granddaughter and had tea with her.

 

There is still much research to do, and we’re hoping that we can discover information about other, perhaps more recent, notable ladies of Southend whose stories have been lost in the annals of time.

 

If you are interested in getting involved, have a look at out current volunteering opportunities 

Focus on…Epping Forest District Museum

It has been an exciting time for Epping Forest District museum as they reopened this year with improved facilities and displays and an extension into the building next door which gives them more exhibition space and an activity room. The improvements were funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The museum is based in Waltham Abbey in a Tudor building which is now far more accessible to all thanks to the recent improvements. It tells the story of the Epping Forest district through its collections of art, archaeology, photographs, social history and documents and has over 50 000 object in its collection. You can get a flavour of the range of its collections by visiting a new gallery- the core gallery- which has a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. This gallery also lets visitors see what is happening behind the scenes and allow a peek into the art and costume stores.

The museum is keen to uncover the untold stories of the roles played by women at work over the last 100 years. They are looking for volunteers to help them research material both in the collection at the Museum in Waltham Abbey and in the community across the district. You could contribute to this by researching stories online, visiting libraries in the district or by visiting the Essex record Office to give the museum ideas of what stories might be hiding, untold, in their collection.

 

National Volunteers’ week

June 1st to 7th is Volunteers’ week – a time to say thank you for the fantastic contribution volunteers make across the country. We’ve talked about our volunteers before but can’t miss this chance to celebrate the work they have been doing – and have signed up to do- again.

We launched our volunteering programme in International Woman’s Day (March 8th) using the Volunteer Makers platform. Through this we have recruited 113 volunteers who are supporting our 12 partner museums with research, by transcribing oral histories, decoding 100-year-old handwriting in a police notebook and sharing information across social media.

 

Some volunteers have enjoyed the fact that they can fit volunteering around busy lives and have taken up challenges that means they can work from home when they get a minute (and every minute adds up). Others find that they enjoy being part of a team and there is a very active group in Southend working with the Museum service there.

The research stage of the project is going well – although we’d really like to find out more about the women who worked in various engineering firms across Essex- can you help?

There are also opportunities to visit various libraries and record offices to explore what information they hold– we can help with travel expenses so don’t let that put you off. Braintree museum would love more help in researching Katherine Mina Courtauld and Redbridge Museum would like volunteers to look through the newspaper archive at the Heritage centre for stories of local suffragettes.

The next stage is to start to put all of this research together so we can tell the stories of strong Essex women over the last 100 years. Volunteers are signing up to help design an exhibition, to work on an engagement programme and to help take these stories out to events across the county. There are still spaces on these teams if you’d like to sign up.

We are lucky that we have an experienced museum curator who has volunteered her time to support the project (thank you Becky!) but you don’t need any experience of working in museums, exploring archives or designing exhibitions to get involved as we will provide any training and support you need. You just need enthusiasm and an interest in celebrating the lives and achievement of strong Essex women over the last 100 years.

Finally- THANK YOU to all of you who have taken part so far

Focus on… Southend Museums

Votes for WomenSouthend Museums consists of four unique venues spread across the town:

  • Southend Central Museum and Planetarium
  • Beecroft Art Gallery
  • Southchurch Hall
  • Prittlewell Priory

 

The museum has been working very closely with Snapping the Stiletto volunteers to research women at the start of our hundred year period. In addition to trying to discover the identity of this mystery suffragette, stories being researched include that of Adelaide Hawken, who set up Southend’s first mother and baby clinic and Rosina Sky, a suffrage leader who ran a tobacconist shop in the town who refused to pay her business rates as she couldn’t vote on how they were spent.

 

Click here to find out how to get involved in this and other opportunities across the county.

 

We are particularly keen to highlight our events team, who will be helping to share stories like these at a range of displays and celebratory events over the coming year and a half. Monday 4th June is our first training day for events volunteers, although others will be scheduled soon if you can’t make it (including at least one on a weekend). For more information, click here.

 

Why Now?

Amy Cotterill, Museum Development Officer, explains why Snapping the Stiletto is looking back on the past hundred years and examines why the stories we’re uncovering are relevant today.

handmaid

Elizabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale

Sunday saw the return of The Handmaids Tale to Channel 4. Based on the novel by Margaret Attwood, it depicts a future where American women’s rights have been thoroughly supressed. They are not allowed to read, have jobs or have bank accounts.

 

Over the weekend, I read this interview with Margaret Atwood, discussing how the book is frighteningly relevant today, arguably more so then when it was first published in the 1980s. It made me think about this project, why I instigated it and how much has changed for women (both positively and negatively) in just the last couple of years since I started working on it.

 

Relevance when it was originally written…

Things began back in 2016, when museums across Essex were taking part in a WW1 commemoration project entitled Now the Last Poppy Has Fallen. The project was coming to an end and several museums asked me to support them in running another countywide project. A quick Google search revealed that 2018 marks 100 years since the first UK women got the vote, 90 years since women were able to vote on equal terms with men and 50 years since women employed by Ford at Dagenham went on strike for equal pay. Given the local and national relevance, and the negative stereotype surrounding “Essex Girls”, a project celebrating the women of Essex was an obvious choice for all of us. We wanted to explore how women’s lives have changed during this last century and highlight stories of inspiring individuals to help shift perceptions of what it actually means to be an Essex woman.

 

As I worked with the museums to flesh out the project, the need for a project researching the history of women in the county became very clear. Most museums had very little knowledge of what was in their collection regarding women’s history. For most of the past hundred years, museum collections have been assembled and researched by men, often pursuing their own particular areas of interest. Women’s history has been very much neglected. We knew that the museum collections contained objects that could tell stories of many amazing women, but we lacked the information to know what those stories are.

 

While I was writing our application to the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund, the “period tax” and debates around equal pay were very much in the news, and this certainly informed how the project was developed.

Consulting with the museums, we were very clear that this project was about two things.

  1. Improving museum’s own understanding of Essex women’s history over the past hundred years and how that is reflected within their collections
  2. Sharing the stories we uncover with as many people as possible

 

Our definition of an “Essex woman” is very broad and we have always wanted to make sure that the stories include those of women who migrated to Essex from around the world.

It was also clear to us that we reach people who don’t usually visit museums with our project, we need to work with members of the public to help plan and deliver the project. Our Project Manager Pippa Smith has been conducting a lot of consultation to find out what themes to focus our research on and how we can present the information to reach as many people as possible.

 

Relevance now…

I always believed that in showing how much women’s lives have changes, we would highlight how much still needs to change, but I was unprepared for how much the news would be dominated by women’s rights during the last two years. The election of Donald Trump and the protest marches this sparked, #MeToo, Meghan Markle giving up her career as an actress when she got married and the Windrush Scandal at a time when we are trying to promote how much migrant women have done for our county. The gender pay gap and period poverty have not gone away and continue to be issues that need addressing.

 

Today is the Irish Referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Depending on the outcome, women there may gain the rights that Essex women have had since 1967 while in America, Trump’s administration is seeking to cut funding to family planning clinics if they provide “abortion related services”.

 

The research done by our incredible volunteers has uncovered so many parallels to these “modern” themes. The protests of the suffrage movement, women being sacked as teachers because they had married or finding that their pay had been cut when they returned from honeymoon because “their husband would be providing for them”, the first women’s clinics being founded in Essex during and after World War 1…

 

I am already proud of the work this project is doing, but I hope that when it ends in Autumn 2019, we can say that we have not only been relevant, but that we have led to positive changes for local women.

 

If you to be involved in Snapping the Stiletto, we have numerous volunteering opportunities, including helping with events and writing exhibition text. Find out more here. New opportunities are added regularly so do keep checking back.